What the best wet dry vacs have

  • A large capacity. For collecting wood chips or other big cleanups, look for a 16- to 20-gallon tank. For most workshops and households, 10- to 14-gallon models have plenty of capacity, are easier to store and move around, and still offer adequate suction. For cleaning a house or car, smaller wet dry vacs with tanks that hold 5 or 6 gallons are easier to transport. Portable 1- to 3-gallon vacuums offer the most convenience, but they provide a lot less suction and capacity. Also consider storage space; different shop vacuums of equal capacity vary in height and shape, so some fit better in a closet than under a workbench or on a shelf.
  • A wide hose diameter. For general workshop pickup, such as vacuuming wood chips and shavings, experts recommend a 2.25- to 2.5-inch hose. Smaller hoses tend to clog. However, if you're using power tools in a workshop, you'll need a smaller, flexible hose that adapts to the dust ports on your tools. Many reviewers recommend that workshops include a tool-triggered shop vacuum for collecting dust, plus a larger consumer-grade model for cleaning up big wood chips and other debris. Extra-long hoses are available for most models, but in most cases this reduces suction.
  • Quiet operation. The best shop vacs are about as quiet as a standard household upright or canister vacuum cleaner, and no ear protection is needed. Powerful, pro models intended for use in a workshop can be louder, and that noise is increased further still by tools used in conjunction with a tool-triggered model. Most experts recommend wearing ear protection at 85 decibels, but it's wise to err on the side of caution.
  • A drain valve or spout. Without one of these, you'll have to take the lid off and tip the tank to empty it when cleaning up liquids. Remember, a big shop vacuum with a full tank of liquid can be heavy; if you plan to suck up liquids regularly, a drain plug is a must-have.
  • Wide-set wheels and a low profile. Both prevent tipping. If you have to haul your vacuum up and down stairs, models with large back wheels and a handle are easier to use.
  • Cord wraps and onboard attachment and hose storage. Users note that these features don't always work as well as advertised, with attachments or tool caddies not fitting securely and sometimes falling off. It's a good idea to read owner reviews of models you're considering.
  • A long hose. Most top wet dry vacuums in the mid- to large-size range have a hose between 7 and 10 feet. For wall-mount wet dry vacs and portable models, hoses may be as long as 20 or even 32 feet.
  • An ample power cord. Much like the length of the hose, the power cord length determines how much reach a wet dry vacuum has. Some wall-mount wet dry vacs have a short hose of about 5 feet, while larger models may have a 20-foot hose or longer.

Know before you go

How much will accessories cost? Many of the tool attachments, filters and dust bags designed for consumer-grade shop vacs can be used on more than one brand, but higher-end wet dry vacs often require more expensive supplies. You may also want to budget for extra accessories -- not just dust bags or filters, but a longer, bigger or more flexible hose, or more extension wands for reaching high ceilings. Most standard vacuum attachments work with hoses with a diameter of 1.25 inches.

Will you use a blower feature? Wet dry vacs that double as blowers can be noisy and tend to exhaust more dust. Reviewers warn that when you use them to clean a very dusty room, some may blow around the dust you're trying to vacuum. Some models feature removable lids that double as blowers, though these get mixed reviews for convenience. If you plan to use the blower, evaluate reviews to choose a wet dry vac that minimizes unwanted blowing effects when using the vacuum function.

Do you plan to vacuum liquids frequently? If you plan to vacuum water and other liquid messes frequently, you can invest in a pump as an accessory.

Will you be vacuuming wood chips or large debris? Wet dry vacuums with a 2.5-inch hose diameter don't clog as easily when sucking up larger debris.

Is air quality a concern? If you're trying to minimize dust pollution in your home or work area, a shop vac with a HEPA filter and compatibility with dust collection bags result in better filtration, removing smaller particles from the air.

Where will you store your wet dry vac? If you have ample storage space, size may be of little concern. However, if you plan to store your wet dry vac under a shelf in a workshop or in a tight space, measure your available space to ensure you choose a model that will fit. If your home or garage is limited on storage, consider a wall-mount wet dry vacuum.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Wet dry vacuums come with warranties ranging from a single year to lifetime. While a few wet dry vacs experience problems with motors breaking down or burning out over time, most are pretty durable. But breakdowns aren't the main costs owners should be concerned with when choosing a wet dry vacuum. For some models, you'll want to consider the cost of replacing filters and dust collection bags. Filters, depending on type, cost between $20 and $30; some are washable, so they need to be replaced less often. Canister bags, or dust collection bags, cost between $5 and $15 for a pack of two or three bags.

Most wet dry vacuums come with at least a few attachments, some with a full set of seven or more attachments for different cleaning tasks, including extension wands for greater reach. If your upright or canister vacuum has attachments, these attachments are compatible with most wet dry vacuums with a 1.25-inch hose diameter.

Elsewhere in This Report